Demand for dogs––bought or adopted––likely to fall as Baby Boom generation ages
CULLOWHEE, North Carolina––“Peak Oil,” explains Wikipedia, “is the moment at which extraction of petroleum reaches a rate greater than that at any time in the past and starts to permanently decrease.”
The oil extraction and processing giant BP, formerly British Petroleum, projected in 2020 that Peak Oil had already been reached, albeit more than 50 years after earlier political and economic prognosticators believed Peak Oil was imminent.
Peak Dog, comparably, is the moment at which the dog population reaches numbers greater than at any time in the past and begins trending downward––perhaps not permanently, but without significant upticks for several generations.
International Dog Day 2021 may have marked the tipping point
International Dog Day 2022 came and went on August 26, 2022 with little or no public discussion of Peak Dog, but amid many indications that if Peak Dog in the United States has not already been reached, it will be reached soon, whether or not Elon Musk invents an electronic dog that cuts into the dog market.
International Dog Day is only the most successful in attracting media notice of many similar promotional gimmicks attributed to southern California dog rescuer and trainer Colleen Paige, who also reputedly originated National Puppy Day, National Mutt Day, and National Cat Day.
Animal shelters and rescues throughout the world, but especially in the U.S., tout International Dog Day adoption events.
The International Dog Day headlines in 2022, however, were distinctly gloomy compared to those of the preceding several years.
Adoption momentum soared, then crashed
Summarized Salon.com nights and weekends editor Brett Bachman on July 4, 2021, “As the COVID-19 pandemic swept first through the United States a year ago, dog adoptions skyrocketed. PetPoint, which keeps statistics on the number of animals currently in the American shelter system, found that adoptions were up more than 12% in 2020 — after years of declining numbers. Anecdotal reports from breeders suggest demand for new puppies followed this trajectory as well.”
Pet-keeping demographers and historians may eventually point toward July 4, 2021, or International Dog Day 2021 about two months later, as the exact date of Peak Dog.
Or not. Determining Peak Dog with precision will probably never be done, due to the inherent imprecision of pet-keeping input information.
At some moment during the latter half of 2021, though, the pendulum appears to have swung and dog acquisitions began dropping, owner surrenders of dogs to animal shelters jumped, and shelter and rescue personnel have become increasingly anxious about the consequences.
“Now shelters have more dogs than kennels”
Observed Arizona Republic engagement reporter Raphael Romero Ruiz on International Dog Day, “The number of pets in animal shelters across the country, including Maricopa County, has increased dramatically this summer. Now shelters have more dogs than kennels to support incoming rescues,” a return to the longtime status quo before decades of spay/neuter work facilitated the advent of “no-kill” animal control within the past 15 to 20 years.
“We are still in the summer season which is typically at critical capacity,” Maricopa County communications officer Kimberley Powell told Romero Ruiz, “but a big reason why we are seeing more dogs being brought into the shelter is because of the high cost of living here in Arizona.”
In truth, Arizona ranks 36th in cost of living among the 50 U.S. states, meaning Arizona is more affordable than two-thirds of the rest of the country.
But Powell may still be correct that growing numbers of Maricopa residents are finding themselves unable to afford keeping a dog, amid soaring costs of veterinary care, inflation generally, housing scarcity, and homeowner and renter insurance premiums rising more than as result of increasing payouts to victims of dog attacks, chiefly by pit bulls.
(See Best Friends wants you pay more for insurance to subsidize pit bulls.)
Sumpter County abandons no-kill
The Maricopa County trend is anything but unique. Across the country, in Sumpter County, Florida, the county commissioners just ahead of International Dog Day 2022 acknowledged that a multi-year attempt to provide no-kill animal control “has been a failure,” reported Villages Daily Sun manager editor Curt Hills.
“Last week,” Hills wrote, “143 dogs were housed at the shelter designed for 54 kennels. The overcrowding has increased concerns about sanitation and safety, including at least 13 people being bitten, according to a report provided by assistant county administrator Stephen Kennedy.”
The problem in Sumpter County, as in Maricopa County and at other shelters around the U.S., even those that limit admission, is simply that more people are giving up dogs than are taking them in.
The trend is especially accentuated for pit bulls, constituting nearly half of the total U.S. shelter and rescue dog population for several years now.
(See What we discovered from counting 1,122,465 dogs over the weekend.)
Dog industry profits at risk
But even if pit bulls are taken out of the equation, dog demand appears to be dropping, with no likelihood of a longterm upturn in sight.
Amid the tide of public opinion built by national no-kill advocacy organizations around slogans such as “We can save them all!” and “Don’t buy––adopt!”, though, hardly anyone dares speak about “Peak Dog.”
The very concept of “Peak Dog” threatens the future profitability of the $124-billion-per-year-plus industry built around selling dog food, accessories, training, and providing canine veterinary care.
Too few dogs to support demand?
On the contrary, wrote former Humane Society of the U.S. senior vice president Andrew Rowan, now heading Wellbeing International, in his August 24, 2022 blog marking International Dog Day, “To the surprise of many animal advocates, discussions are taking place this year on whether there may be too few dogs to support demand in the U.S.
“Since April 2022,” continued Rowan, “three conferences have addressed the suggested shortage of pet dogs. Those conferences included the Animal Care Expo in Orlando, Florida,” hosted by the Humane Society of the U.S., “a conference organized by the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement and sponsored by PetSmart Charities in Chicago, and a conference on the humane breeding of dogs at Purdue University, also in June 2022.
“Not all animal advocates, perhaps not even a majority, are convinced that there is or might be a dog shortage in the U.S.,” Rowan conceded.
Mortality vs. acquisition
Indeed, most animal shelter and rescue personnel still speak of themselves as fighting “pet overpopulation,” rather than a glut of dogs, mostly pit bulls, who were bred and acquired deliberately but flunked out of homes.
The only visible support for the notion that the U.S. might have a dog shortage comes from Rowan’s own projections that about 9% of the U.S. dog population must be replaced each year just to keep up with mortality, and that this, combined with meeting demand for dogs increasing at the rate of recent decades, requires the births of from 6.7 to 8.9 million puppies per year.
The fatal flaw in Rowan’s calculation is that there is no real evidence that every pet dog who dies is being replaced, or that dogs are being added to households at anywhere near the rate when the Baby Boom generation were coming of age and raising children who by now have almost entirely left home and embarked upon raising families of their own.
Hal Herzog saw Peak Dog coming
Western Carolina University anthrozoologist Hal Herzog, without ever mentioning Peak Dog, on September 30, 2020 made a strong case that it is coming soon.
“The United States is at or near the top of countries in terms of dog ownership,” Herzog began. That by itself might tend to suggest a forthcoming drop back toward the norms for affluent industrialized nations.
Herzog went on to point out that according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, just under half of all U.S. households (49%) keep either a dog or a cat.
Paradoxically, Herzog wrote, “According to the Pet Products Association, the number of dogs and cats in the U.S. increased by about 32% between 2000 and 2017. At the same time, the human population grew only 15%.”
More pets per home could not be sustained
Simply put, dog-and-cat-keeping homes during those years took in more dogs and cats than ever before, coinciding with the peak years of enthusiasm for trying to adopt our way out of “pet overpopulation.”
But that boom in dog and cat acquisition was unsustainable.
“The American Veterinary Medical Association has conducted regular surveys of pet ownership since the mid-1980s,” Herzog continued. “Their 1987 survey found that 38% of households in the United States included a dog and 31% included a cat. In their 2017/18 survey, 38% of American homes included a dog and 25% a cat. Basically, no change at all.”
Acknowledged Rowan to Herzog by email, Herzog wrote, “The percent of homes in the United States that include a dog or cat has not changed for three decades.”
In Rowan’s own words, “Relative dog ownership has remained remarkably constant in the U.S.A. over 70 years.”
“Six powerful socio-economic trends”
Herzog then pointed out “six powerful socio-economic trends could nullify even the impact of TV ads featuring cute puppies and media reports hyping the idea that getting a dog will make you live longer.”
First, Herzog mentioned, “Americans are getting older. And older people are the demographic group least likely to own a pet,” partly for economic reasons but mostly because pet care becomes increasingly difficult as people develop infirmities of age, and many former pet-keepers give up pet-keeping rather than die or become incapacitated, leaving a pet at risk.
“It is possible,” Herzog speculated, “that as the country becomes more racially diverse, pet ownership will decrease. Rand Corporation researchers found that that whites were three times as likely to own a dog and five times as likely to own a cat than non-whites.”
Further, African-Americans “were half as likely to own a dog and a third as likely to own a cat as other respondents. The pet ownership patterns among Hispanics and Asian-Americans were similar,” Herzog said.
Herzog also noted urbanization. “Americans have been moving to the cities,” Herzog explained, “and city-dwellers are less likely to have pets. According to 2017 data from the US Census American Household Survey, only 46% of urban dwellers had a dog, compared to 66% of ruralites.
“Homes with children are the most likely to include a pet,” Herzog continued. “Today, fewer households include children than in the past. Between 1970 and 2019 the percentage of homes that included children under the age of 18 dropped from 54% to 41%.
“One of the biggest factors in pet ownership is whether you live alone or with other people,” Herzog added. “Between 1960 and 2020, the percentage of individuals who live by themselves doubled from 14% to 28%. This does not bode well for the pet products industry. According to the 2018 General Social Survey,” Herzog said, “53% of married people had a dog compared to only 26% of unmarried individuals.”
Possibly the biggest factor in the approach of Peak Dog, Herzog finished, is that “The average lifetime cost of owning a dog in the United States is about $15,000. According to the U.S. Census, the higher your income, the more likely you are to have a pet in your life.
“The number of Americans living in poverty is going up and the middle class is rapidly shrinking. Our increasing disparity in wealth might be good for doggie day spas and luxury pet food brands,” Herzog warned, “but it might also mean fewer homes will include a pet.”
Connie Mogull says
i VOLUNTEERED TO TRY TO DO LOST AND FOUND PETS IN HOUSTON, TEXAS AFTER HARVEY–I had done it for Katrina and have done it for years locally in the suburbs of NYC. It was shocking that many lost dogs appeared in Houston but shockingly, no one reported losing them or wanting to find their lost dogs. Now years later and still attempting to do lost and found on line, I see that hundreds of dogs are abandoned all over that entire area, beautiful dogs, Pure breed dogs, young dogs, puppies old dogs. They are all over, starving, getting hit by cars, running in packs, it is the most heartbreaking situation that these once pets are at a complete loss at how to survive alone, no food, no care, often being chased away and sometimes even being shot. Yes, more dogs than homes!!!
Hal Herzog says
Thanks! That blog post never got much attention. I am glad you saw it. I think the reason that the pet products industry pushes the erroneous idea that pet-ownership is key to health and happiness is that they see the demographic writing on the wall!
Annoula Wylderich says
A billion dollar industry will do everything it can to encourage pet ownership. It’s time to stem the flow of evermore pets coming down the pipeline, from dogs, cats, rabbits to hamsters, birds, etc. and into the hands of owners who are either inadequately informed or prepared or interested in providing for the needs of their pets. Communities are quick to blame shelters for their flaws, but they’re not the cause of the problem.
Thanks for this piece.
Keeping a pet is becoming outrageously expensive. I am routinely appalled by my vet bills for the most routine work like vaccines and blood tests. Heaven help you if you have a pet with a chronic medical condition who has to eat special prescription food, etc.
Many people who follow this site are willing to cut corners in their own budgets to make sure their pets get proper care, but not everyone is willing (or able) to do that.
What I’ve noticed is that many people are being priced out of *responsible* pet care. They still may get the dog or cat, but that animal never sees a vet, never gets vaccinated or spay/neutered. It seems that the headway the humane community made in promoting these behaviors, especially for young and lower income people, is rapidly eroding. Expect to see the pet population dying at younger ages from preventable or treatable conditions.